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Misconceptions about Morgan

Lewis (not Henry) Morgan

Somewhere in an Anthropology 101 or Introduction to Anthropological Theory class today some half-truths and some outright untruths about Morgan are going to be kicked around. “Morgan as racist” is one of the half-truths. A racialized hierarchy is front and center in Ancient society, but Morgan also dedicated League of the Ho-de′-no-sau-nee to his friend Ely Parker, so his views on race are not entirely straightforward, especially by today’s standards.

“Morgan the armchair anthropologist” is a typical trope in Theory of Anthropology courses so that the history of the discipline is portrayed as unfolding in a series of evolutionary steps, with the next being towards in-person ethnography. (Ironically enough, those who structure their courses in this way often beat up on the evolutionary aspects of Morgan’s thought.) But Morgan did do fieldwork, and more than once—Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois material culture and The Indian journals are the go-to readings on the subject. I suspect that the knowledge that two of Morgan’s children passed away during one of these periods of research will garner him a good deal of sympathy from anyone who has suffered a major loss while “in the field.”

Image courtesy of Union College’s Schaffer Library.

And perhaps the most common misconception of all about Lewis Henry Morgan is that his middle name was Henry. He was born Lewis Morgan and added the ⟨H.⟩ between his two names as a young man. Later in life when he was asked what the H. stood for, he replied, “Henry, if anything” (see Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois material culture, p. 295). A trivial detail to some, perhaps, but checking the details every now and again can be worth the effort. What you learn in the process isn’t always going to end up being so trivial.


Morgan, Lewis H. 1851. League of the Ho-de′-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois. Rochester, N.Y.: Sage & Brother.
—————— 1877. Ancient society: or, Researches in the line of human progress from savagery through barbarism to civilization. New York: Henry Holt and Company. Belknap Press edition, edited by Leslie A. White, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1964.

Morgan, Lewis Henry, and Leslie A. White (ed.) 1959. The Indian journals, 1859–62. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Tooker, Elisabeth. 1994. Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois material culture. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.








  1. robertlfs says:

    When I took social organization a bunch of years ago from an unnamed arrogant prof in my PhD program, we all went around the room the first day of class and said something about why we were taking the class. So, everyone is talking 50 cent words and I am this blue collar kid from Ohio, the first person in my family to even go to college, and I am a bit nervous. So, it gets around to me and I say something like “I enjoyed Morgan’s kinship studies in my MA program and look forward to continuing . . . .” to which the esteemed professor said something like “I am unaware of any contribution that Morgan made to kinship studies. Next.”

    So it goes.


    • Wow, that’s horrible! I remember my first semester at graduate school in Bloomington that I said to my advisor that I wondered why Lévi-Strauss had dedicated The Elementary Structures of Kinship to Morgan. My advisor laughed and said, “Who else would he dedicate it to, Matthew?”


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